A Guest Quarters story
T. D. Edge
Arwen Jones knew that the black car with the black windows screeching to a halt in front of them had come for her.
Swansea, Friday night, and as usual she and the girls had been out on the piss, going from club to club, having a right laugh. Dressed in not much, multi-coloured lights splashing across their bare arms, legs and upper chests; mascara deepening their lusty eyes; boys trying for them but not hard enough yet—maybe later they'd let them in closer, when the drugs and drink made them not care too much about the details, when they just needed a quick, hard shag to complete the happy oblivion, something to joke about tomorrow over coffee and toast at one of their apartments.
She loved her life, so much so that none of the girls ever guessed her secret. When she laughed with them, she really hooted; and when she had sex with one of the lads, she screamed with easy triumph as if that was all she wanted in the whole wide world.
But as she'd suspected, the two shaven-headed goons in suits who jumped out of the car came right toward her.
Her mates closed ranks, linking arms and sticking out their chests in defiance. But their eyes flickered at her with the beginnings of doubt.
"Arwen Jones," said the older goon, his eyes wary, as well he might be, considering what she could do. "We're members of the security services and we'd appreciate you coming along with us, please."
For a second, she considered fighting, but if she used her powers, the girls would definitely never want to be with her again.
So, while her friends shouted things like, "Screw you, coppers!" and, "Keep your hands off our Arwen, you perves!" she reluctantly unhooked her arms from them and stepped forward.
"What's this all about?" she said.
The two agents showed her their badges, not that she knew if they were genuine or not, and the older one said, "We'll explain everything if you just come with us."
She turned and shrugged at her mates. "I'll see you later. Don't drink all the Diamond Whites." Then she flashed her blood across their minds, so they'd forget the men and the car and her being taken away.
In the BMW, the cold leather of the back seat pressed against her bare thighs. The young agent sat next to her, keeping his gaze level but she sensed him watching her, and not just professionally. Well, that could be dangerous, she thought. For him.
The car edged through the piss-heads and prossies on Wind Street, then along the sweeping curve of Swansea Bay. Arwen decided to say nothing, even though it might seem unnatural, for wouldn't an innocent girl be yelling and screaming and demanding a lawyer?
They turned right, headed uphill toward the Gower moors. They passed a number of villages, dancing yellowish light from the car bouncing off the hedgerows hemming in the narrow roads. Cat's eyes gleamed and once a fox scurried into the hedge. The car slowed at nowhere in particular, turned on to a dirt track. A hundred yards up a hill and it dipped down again, the long lights picking out a white fence, then a mansion poking above the trees behind it.
Crunching gravel under the tires, then she climbed out of the car, wishing this was just a hotel where she had a room booked with a mini-bar and satellite TV. But she knew, really, that the government would not normally have a place like this on the South Wales coast, so it must be mainly for her.
The agents ushered her into the reception area, black and white tiled floor and plain desk with nothing-faced woman behind it. The older agent said, "Hello, Marion; should we go through?" as if asking if their restaurant table was ready.
They took her along a short corridor, into a room then left her, the younger one smiling by way of farewell, professional after all, then. She didn't even know their names.
The room had a beige carpet, white sofa and chairs, a low coffee table between them with a vase of tulips and a pile of what looked like Sunday supplement magazines. All very nondescript. She sat in one of the chairs, letting her blood swell to read the air of the house: no families; those who used the place professional, particular, routine-based.
Bollocks. Push it more, girl; don't be so mardy.
Under the predictable matrix atmosphere of exercise, checking and testing, monitoring and briefing, she sensed something different—a gap in the predictability; a prepared space, ready to receive the new, to work it, explore it, change it.
God, I wish I was stuffing myself with faggots and chips, washing it down with vodka, arseing around with the girls. But I suppose this was always going to happen one day.
Figuring cameras would be everywhere, she didn't let her face show her feelings. Later, just as she thought about taking a nap, the door opened again and a woman about her age walked in.
"You're Arwen," she said.
"I'd give you a peanut if I had one."
The woman wore a navy shirt and navy trousers, blonde hair tied back, face clear of make-up. Pretty but not bothered about it, at least not right now.
"I'm Gaynor. Do you mind if I sit?"
"It's a free country—that's a joke, by the way. You a rozzer too?"
Gaynor sat in the chair opposite. "An agent? No."
"But they chose you to replace me, didn't they?"
Gaynor's eyes widened slightly. "How do you—I mean, why do you say that?"
She decided not to mention that her blood was scanning the woman, feeding Arwen's instinct with likely scenarios. Instead she said, "You fit the bill. Fit my bill. Same weight, blood type, IQ, etcetera, etcetera."
She didn't want it but couldn't prevent the years snapping forward then, piling into her current short life.
"Do you know what a dragon is?" she said.
"I don't—oh, you're winding me up."
"Actually, I'm trying to save your life. Dragons are the side-product of the spirit. Oh, no, Arwen what are you saying: dragons, the spirit—all this metaphysical malarkey is making our computers fuse."
"So, what do you mean by the spirit?"
"Basically, it's that deep down feeling of 'fuck 'em all' that every kid gets born with but which soon gets mashed into mediocrity by mam and da and school and the bleedin' church choir."
"Is that why there aren't dragons anymore—because life has become so mediocre?"
"Careful, girl. I'm carrying over ten centuries' worth of menstrual moon-suck to know when I'm being condescended to."
"Sorry. It's my briefing."
"No, it's mediocrity munching your mind. If you don't fight it, taking over my role will kill you."
"Because you do drugs, drink too much and have a lot of casual sex?"
"At least you've done your research. No, because if you take away my role, I won't be able to keep a leash on the dragon, like I've done for the past several centuries."
She made the air thicken, so that light from the lamps in the corner expanded and sounds from outside the room lengthened into drawling miscues.
"So, how have you kept going so long?" said Gaynor.
"I start physically fresh every twenty years or so—take over a new body. Each time, the dragon tries to escape, of course, but I force it back to sleep and it keeps relatively quiet until the next change."
"So," said Gaynor, "your special powers result from your ability to tap the dragon?"
"Well, the dragon made them stronger. But every time I use them, it stirs; and if I use them too much it'll break out eventually. I'm betting they didn't tell you there'd be a price, did they?"
Gaynor's eyes flicked around the room. "No. They just told me you had powers... and I wanted them."
"Well, you should be shitting your pants at the price you'll have to pay. Do you really think no one's tried to take them off me before? Kings, Queens and one-bollocked magicians down the ages have strapped me to tables, dug around in my ears, eyes, even my fanny, trying to yank out the fizzy stuff. They've all failed, mind.
"Now it looks like the sodding scientists have somehow managed to cop a reading from my blood field and it's their turn to poke about inside me. Well, fuck 'em all."
Arwen stood. "Stand up," she said.
Gaynor hesitated, but stood.
Arwen held out her hand and the girl took it. She slowed the light again, around them both, then led the way to the door. In the corridor outside, they passed people who clearly could not see them.
"Where are you taking me?" said Gaynor.
"You don't have to bloody whisper; sound can't escape this bubble either. I'm taking you out of here, which is as good a start as any."
But half way across the lobby floor, Gaynor twisted her hand from Arwen's, pulled a remote control from her pocket and pointed it at the ceiling. A panel slid swiftly back and a steel cage dropped to the floor, surrounding Arwen.
"You bitch," she said, but more annoyed with herself than the girl.
If she'd been using her powers regularly over the past few years, she could have bent the steel enough to get out. But she'd been happy getting pissed and having a laugh, hadn't she? Telling herself that was the safest option. Got lazy about resisting that incredible and deadly thing sleeping in her spine.
Just as she began to figure out if she could tap enough energy to escape without waking it, something ripped up her nose like bad coke and she lost consciousness.
The first sign of their stupidity, when she came round again, was the absence in her blood. The sounds of people talking nearby carried no plump resonances showing her their real meaning, and the odours of starch, coffee and disinfectant were nothing more, no snap of their underlying use in her nostrils.
As her conscious mind returned slowly, she tried to stop it sensing what her body already knew.
The dragon was gone.
A man in his thirties in a white lab coat smiled upon seeing her awake.
"You're an ordinary girl, now," he said. "Just like you always wanted to be."
"Are you a mongo?" she said. "Do you realise what you've done?"
"Do you realise what we've done?"
"Yes, you've killed Gaynor for a start. And when she dies... oh, why the fuck should I tell you. It won't make any difference anyway."
"I'm Steven Davies, by the way. I'm sorry you feel like that, but Gaynor's not in any danger."
"Seriously—are you a dipstick, or what? Shit, I need to get out of here."
"You're free to leave any time."
"Look, you listened in to what I said to her about the dragon, didn't you, Steven?"
"Yes, but we assumed you were speaking metaphorically—about spiritual energy, Kundalini, the serpent, and so on."
"You assumed wrong. I meant it literally."
"But that's not possible. How can a dragon exist in one's spine?"
"Not one's—my spine. Now it's in Gaynor's but she doesn't have a bloody clue how to keep it asleep."
"We've taken scans of her body. There's nothing to show any dragon."
"Jesus... have you got a girl friend?"
"Do you love her; can you prove it?"
He smiled. "Clever. But unlike dragons, the case for love can be extrapolated via strong biological imperatives."
"Is that how you wooed her? Is she a babble geek too?"
She stood unsteadily then left the operating room, not surprised no one tried to stop her; after all, they'd taken her powers, hadn't they?
Steven followed her to a rest room where she poured coffee into a cup and sat down, her body feeling slow with all the years.
"If this dragon exists, Arwen, what's going to happen to it?"
She sipped the drink, gazed out of the night-black window.
"If it can, it'll turn her inside out then head for the stars."
"I know you don't believe me. But you will. Because when it takes her out, it'll also take out most of South Wales, maybe the whole country."
A thousand years ago, she would have thrown the cup at him but she'd learned that the glaze of smugness on his face right then was simply the gestalt ignorance of his kind that kept them safe from the dragon.
Had kept them safe.
"Hi 'Wen, rough night?"
In a way, Steven was right: she had what she wanted now—a normal life, sitting in their shared kitchen, still in the clothes she'd worn last night, sipping instant coffee and watching her flatmate with slaggy eyes rummage in the fridge for something full of cream and sugar for the hangover.
"Yes, Carol. In fact, I lost my dragon."
Carol poured water into the spout of the kettle, plugged it in. "Strewth, and I thought you lost your dragon when Tommy Evans took you behind the bike sheds in the third year."
"What you doing today?" Arwen said.
Carol sat at the table, mascara smudged, hair clumped around her head like mowed straw. She shrugged. "Shops, pub, more shops, kip, pub, club. Saturday, isn't it?"
"If you happen to bump into a blond bint called Gaynor, don't get her mad."
"Nutter, is she?"
"She's a witch. Literally. Could change you into something completely different, like a good-looking woman."
"Ha ha. What you doing today?"
"Trying to decide whether or not to save the world, as it happens."
"Well, if you can't, cariad, call me on the mobile so I've got plenty of time to escape."
Money wasn't a problem. She had loads stored away, mostly from sales of ancient artefacts from down her lives. She could just take off, somewhere Gaynor wouldn't know about. Wait until the dragon ignited. It'd kill thousands, even millions, but they should have thought of that before raping her of her legacy.
"What I didn't tell them was that other dragons in ancient times stored human soul eggs at the edge of the planet, all from very bad people. The good ones were allowed out, into the rest of the universe. We'll have to deal with the evil ones, those of us still alive."
"Is that the prologue to a fantasy novel you're writing, Ar? Don't sound very cosy if you're trying to capture the Harry Potter fans."
"I'd better put in some magic shops, school dinners out of thin air and bent head wizards then, hadn't I?"
In twenty years or so, when the first wave—the hardest, baddest of them—grew up, the world would rapidly dissolve into fear and perversion and blood.
She laughed. "It never occurred to those government tim-boys that the reason I hardly ever use my powers is I'm protecting their arses from the fall-out."
"Hey, do you want me to get a notepad or something?"
"Carol, I'm over three thousand years old. I was created by druids—real ones, not those tossers in bed sheets who believe in all that Mother Earth crap—to protect Britain from cruel and violent invaders. They charged my blood with the combined power of a thousand souls gathered through sacrifice. My blood became supernatural as a result. I could turn invisible at will; throw lightning from my fingertips, even fly through the air.
"Oh, I paid for it by losing my womb but children never interested me much anyway. God, the power of the power! But there was something the druids hadn't bargained for."
Carol smiled, leaned forward, face in hands. "You couldn't screw a bloke without his cock catching fire? Hey, this is good stuff; sure you don't want me to write it down."
"Don't worry; they're probably recording it anyway."
Carol's gaze flicked around the kitchen. "Ooh, 'they' too? This gets better and better."
"They didn't bargain for the fact my spirit was so bright it created a dragon more deadly than any invader could be... I need to go for a walk." She stood, reached for her coat on the back of the chair.
"Going to the club tonight?" said Carol.
"Maybe. It all depends on what I decide to do about the dragon."
"Oh, the dragon. Right-o. Well, take some sausages with you and if you meet it, get it to roast 'em with its fiery breath. I'll probably need some munchies after the club."
Arwen smiled. "I know you don't like to end the night without a bit of pork inside you."
Carol didn't reply, her eyes oddly soft.
Outside, the sky rang with clear blue spaces, and under it the town's hump-backed streets bounced down toward Swansea Bay. She walked further uphill, to the viewing area, from where she could see the Mumbles to the West like a great floating serpent.
Gaynor was probably right this minute testing out her new powers. They'd have her throwing bolts at sensor-ridden walls, flying in a wind tunnel, all that shit. And with every second, the dragon becoming more and more restless.
Living, slow to burn, bone contained the fire. And the fire rose from the earth, a small flame for every spirit. Most people these days lost their spirits, at the moment they no longer wanted to fuck 'em all. But the whole and only point to life was to fan it, to grow it then pass it on to the next generation, with the leftovers becoming a soul. And souls could travel to the stars if good, egg themselves to the planet's aura if bad and wait to be hatched, into the next dark stage of life here.
What else could possibly matter?
If she hadn't been stripped, the dragon would not have left her for many years to come. But she hadn't tamed it, hadn't steered its rage from destruction into new life.
Then again, girl, you've been tossing around for at least the last three incarnations. The war and the black and white values it forced upon the people had you throwing yourself into the social fray—rations on food, none on sexual hunger; and the huge rush of joy when the fighting finally ended. Somehow, you let that roll you into the 60s and a new life burning your bra and clouding up your mind with grass... and more sex without consequences.
She ran to her car. Drove fast to the Gower, swerved on to the track and up to the mansion. Ran into the lobby and shouted at the woman on reception, "Get me Steven Davies—tell him it's an emergency!"
The woman did not show any expression as she tapped out an extension number. "Professor Davies," she said, "she's here."
So, they'd expected her. Not a good sign. Harder now to get him to believe. She took a deep breath, struggled to make her face unflustered.
A minute or so later, Davies entered the lobby, found her gaze, smiled unconvincingly.
"Ms. Jones?" he said.
She took his arm, steered him out of earshot. "It's going to happen soon. I can feel it."
"The dragon? Yes, we know."
She squeezed his arm hard. "What? You said you didn't believe me."
"We didn't want you getting in the way of our plans for it."
"Are you mad? It's immortal, nuclear, crazy as hell."
"We've contained it, actually."
"Oh my God, you've killed Gaynor, then."
"That was really unfortunate. We honestly believed we could save her as the dragon left her body."
"Where is it?"
Davies looked over his shoulder anxiously. "I can't tell you."
"For God's sake, what do you think I'm going to do? I've got about as much power left in me as a frog's fart. At the very least, you owe it to me."
He hesitated and she said the thing that would seal her fate but which might at least get him to take her to the dragon. "If you don't show me, I'll tell the police about Gaynor."
He flinched. "Okay, but only for a minute."
He led the way down a flight of stairs to the basement, then along a corridor with grey steel walls and heavy duty doors. At the end of the corridor, he pushed his thumb onto a touch pad and a door clicked open.
Her heart blocked her throat as she entered, never having actually seen the dragon before.
The room was about half the size of a football pitch, the walls lined with computers. Cables snaked across the floor to a copper cradle about ten feet in radius. Hovering above it was a glowing silver sphere of light, apparently trapped by some force coming from the copper.
"Bloody hell," she said. "It's so bright."
He frowned, "What do you mean? I don't have to look through any filters or anything to see it."
"Spirit bright. Can't you sense how angry it is?"
"We don't see any reason to ascribe emotions to it."
"So, what the fuck do you ascribe to it?"
"Something potentially more powerful than several hydrogen bombs."
In the whiteness, she sensed shape and form trying to bind the power. But it would fail. Only her shape and form could hold it. Used to hold it.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, just that you won't have to kill me like you planned."
"Why do you say that?"
"'Cos that dragon's going to blow in about ten seconds time anyway."
She smelt fear from his skin then, and the confident smile at last wilted clean away.
"Nine," she said, "eight, seven..."
She'd have to get the timing exactly right.
He wiped his hands on the sides of his lab coat, gaze flicking around helplessly. "You don't really—"
"Four, three, two..."
She could let it happen. Let it destroy Wales, Britain, God knows, the whole planet. And in that moment, Arwen Jones had to weigh her own attitude, not in spirit power but in simple belief.
Were they worth it?
Here, surrounded by concrete and electrical fields, deep in the earth, they continued their stupid, dangerous experiments. All designed to occupy their attention, to stop them ever asking themselves the important questions, like what the fuck were they supposed to be doing with their fucking lives?
No wonder she'd been driven to drink.
"Oh, sod it—"
She let her mind slip into her blood, to join her spirit, then accelerated the wisdom the years had built there, wrenched the remaining druid essence out of her body and hurled herself at the white light about to explode.
Like grappling white hot coals, spinning and thrusting up through the floors and roof into the wide night sky. They bucked and fizzed across the blackness, dipping to shower roof tops with sparks of spite that dropped down, into lives soon to be ruined by violence and obsession.
Burning, she pulled with all her might to steer it away from Swansea, over the ocean, upwards. But it surged with desire to enflame and destroy all the little spirits that had so long mocked it or turned it into a cosy children's romance.
She understood that need, had swaddled her own often enough with drink or sex. But some ancient protectiveness kept her struggling to guide it upwards, even as it rapidly burst up her very existence.
Her mind flooded with examples of their worthlessness—genocide, paedophilia, corruption, religious destruction; faces, names, deeds at a million images a moment. But she already knew what she knew, and the dragon could not make it worse, only concentrate it into an undeniable argument.
She remembered Carol in the kitchen earlier that day, eyes mostly filled with immediate needs but just the hint of a spark of care for her friend. And the fact that such a small light of unselfishness had survived the thousands of years meant it was worth dying to force the dragon away from its prey.
The air turned colder and the stars brighter, and at the top of the night, a billion minor lights swarmed rapidly toward their ascent: the bad souls, sensing release at last.
With the final breath of her will, she forced the dragon at them, the roaring of its primal anger swamping her essence. The night itself seemed to buckle around them, stars and negative matter and spirit itself all mixing into one massive explosion.
She drifted along the edge of the planet's aura, pulled in two directions. Down meant matter and pain and struggle again, if perhaps a little easier now she'd destroyed the dragon; up felt clear, exciting, free, unknown, challenging.
She tried to move but couldn't. And then she relaxed, realising she was being judged and could do nothing about it.
She turned slowly in her orbit, alternately seeing a shining blue globe with the millions too small to bother her up here, and the black vastness of new beginnings.
Then a moment came when she accelerated, propelled by a verdict.
She smiled. "Fuck me, the stars."
T. D. Edge lives in London. He won a Cadbury's fiction competition at age 10 but only did it for the chocolate. When that ran out, he got writing again and published several children's/YA books (writing as Terry Edge) with Random House, Scholastic, Andre Deutsch and others. A few years back, he attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop where he learned a lot, including how to hug. He's also still happily knackered from attending the excellent 2008 master class workshop in Oregon, run by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He's sold around 15 short stories to various magazines, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Realms of Fantasy.
Story by T. D. Edge, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011